What is Parmesan Cheese?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Parmesan cheese is an iconic hard cheese originally from Italy that is widely used and produced all over the world. Within Europe, it is a protected cheese, meaning that only those made in a certain way in a certain area of Italy can be labeled as Parmesan. Outside of Europe, many generic cheeses use the name. The distinctively salty, slightly granular cheese has many uses in Italian cuisine, such as a topping for pastas and pizzas and as a crucial ingredient in some sauces.

Small bowl of grated parmesan cheese.
Small bowl of grated parmesan cheese.

In most of Europe, Parmesan cheese is referred to by its Italian name: Parmigiano-Reggiano, a reference to the regions in which the cheese is produced. To bear the Parmigiano label, the cheese must be made from cow's milk between May and November in Modena, Parma, Reggio Emilia, or parts of Bologna and Mantova. The cheese is traditionally made by mixing whole morning milk with skimmed milk from the previous evening. The milk is heated and mixed with rennet to form curds, which are pressed in a cheese mold. True Parmesan is molded with a stencil, indicating where and when it was made. The cheese is soaked in a brine bath and then aged for a minimum of two years before being graded for sale.

Parmesan cheese chunks.
Parmesan cheese chunks.

Another well known export of the region is Parma ham. The pigs are often fed the discarded whey from the cheese manufacturing process, and this is said to create a distinct flavor in the meat. The curing process for true Parma ham is also protected, along with many other regional Italian foods. Some import stores specialize in importing protected Italian foods for consumers outside of Europe who would like to be assured the genuine article.

Parmesan cheese wheels.
Parmesan cheese wheels.

True Parmesan cheese is a hard yellowish cheese that breaks in a sliver-like pattern. The dense cheese has large grains in it that can easily be seen with the naked eye. When examining a wedge of cheese, the marks from the Parmigiano-Reggiano stencil will also be able to be seen, and cooks should be able to see which dairy made the cheese and when. A reputable importer will cut a sliver for consumers to taste before packaging the cheese for sale, and may offer tastes of several wheels so that the best flavor can be identified.

Grated parmesan cheese on a caesar salad.
Grated parmesan cheese on a caesar salad.

Grocery stores all over the world also carry cheese made in the Parmesan style outside of Italy. Some of these cheeses rival true Parmigiano-Reggiano for flavor and texture, while others are of a somewhat lesser quality. If possible, cooks should buy this cheese in a whole wedge, rather than pre-grated, as the wedge will hold flavor and texture better, and the cheese will not be as dry when it is used.

Within Europe, Parmesan cheese is a protected cheese.
Within Europe, Parmesan cheese is a protected cheese.
Parmesan cheese is popular on different kinds of pasta.
Parmesan cheese is popular on different kinds of pasta.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

I love Parmesan cheese but I can't stand the cheap stuff. It is like the difference between a really good slice of sharp cheddar cheese and a slice of processed American cheese. Good rule of thumb -- if it comes as powder it is probably not worth eating. Would you buy a powdered cheddar?

I love to make a simple pasta dish with whatever pasta I have in the cupboard and this really simple pepper, Parmesan cheese sauce. It is kind of like an alfredo sauce, but different.

I will add whatever veggies I have in the fridge to the sauce and in about 20 minutes I have a really tasty pasta dish that rivals anything you would find in an Italian restaurant.

I don't know about anyone else, but I sure didn't care for the fat free Parmesan cheese I tried. Come to think of it, I have never cared for any of the fat free or reduced fat cheeses. There is just something lacking in the flavor of them. I would rather have the real thing and a smaller portion size than a reduced fat version.

I was surprised how long a wedge of fresh Parmesan cheese lasts. This kind of cheese does not spoil nearly as quickly as other kinds of cheese.

One of my favorite recipes is baked asparagus with Parmesan cheese. I have a small asparagus patch and when this is ready to eat in the spring, it is so tender and good. After baking it for a few minutes I sprinkle some fresh Parmesan cheese on top and it adds the perfect touch.

I also have a chicken Parmesan cheese recipe where I coat the chicken pieces with a mixture of cheese and eggs and bake in the oven. This adds a nice coating and flavor to the chicken.


I didn't realize the process of making Parmesan cheese was so regimented and that it aged for 2 years. The next time a buy a wedge of this at the store, I will remember that.

I used to buy the pre-grated Parmesan cheese, but once I started buying the wedge there was no comparison. Using fresh Parmesan cheese in my recipes tastes better and is probably better for me too.


@anon277633 -- I just love the taste of anything cheesy and the Parmesan cheese adds that extra cheesy taste. I usually buy the pre-grated kind and sprinkle it on spaghetti, lasagna and on pizza. My grandson loves the taste of Parmesan cheese on his pizza and if we aren't watching, he will have more cheese than pizza!


So why do people love adding Parmesan cheese into their pasta. What is so special about Parmesan cheese? How does it help improve the taste of the pasta?


Can you freeze Parmesan cheese?


Is grated parmesan cheese defined as a processed cheese?


What brand of parmesan cheese doesn't have animal enzymes?


The rennet makes it a no-no for vegetarians. Is there an alternative?


you will most likely get around a 7 percent yield making parmesan cheese.


How do I store parmesan cheese so it won't mold?


I kept a nice size wedge for a year. It just gets harder to grate with time.


how long will a block of parmesan last?


what can i substitute parmesan cheese with?


Can I know how many kilograms of milk needed to have one kilogram of parmesan cheese...

thank you

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